Europe’s announcement of sectorial sanctions against Russia is welcome news. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s continued aggression in Ukraine should not go unanswered by the international community. Over time, this latest round, which affects military, financial, and oil sectors will surely bite. Whether they will change Putin’s calculus in the short term, however, is far less certain. In fact, Putin’s moves to date signal his intentions loud and clear. Far from seeking options for a face-saving de-escalation, Putin is posturing for more military intervention.
The latest reports from U.S. intelligence suggest that Russia has not only been supplying a steady stream of high-end weapons and training to rebels in Ukraine; but they are also firing artillery from across the border. As former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul plainly observed, “Instead of using [the Malaysian Air crash] as a pretext for ending this war, he seems to be doing the opposite, doubling down.”
This should really not surprise us. Just because many of us think it would be unwise for Putin to continue to escalate this crisis, does not mean that he won’t do it anyway. Buoyed by Russian domestic public opinion, Putin has demonstrated remarkable resolve in the face of increasingly tough sanctions and isolation from the international community. The fact that escalating the conflict or even invading Ukraine may not be in Russia’s long-term interests is beside the point. If we continue to try to predict Putin’s behavior based on what we think is “wise” versus what he is actually doing, we will continue to be surprised.
And the Russian president has made it pretty clear how much farther he may go. According to General Philip Breedlove, NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Russia continues to amass combat forces on the Ukraine-Russia border. There are now well over 12,000 Russian combat troops deployed there, including seven battalion task groups and some special operations units, poised and ready for a full scale invasion if and when the time comes.
Meanwhile, as armed rebels continue to intimidate investigators and further contaminate evidence from the Malaysia Air crash site, Australia, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Britain, and Germany are thinking through how best to protect international investigators with some combination of armed and unarmed police and military troops. In this increasingly tense environment, foreign boots on the ground are looking increasingly inevitable. The question is, whose boots will they be?
Having previously announced his desire for outside forces to protect the interests of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, Putin has already set the stage for putting boots on the ground under the pretext of a “peacekeeping” or “humanitarian” mission. He is now physically postured to do this unilaterally. If past is prologue, among these Russian “peacekeeping” troops will be others who look suspiciously similar to Russian special operations troops, further tipping the scales and complicating the facts on the ground.
As General Breedlove, wrote on July 16, “Russia’s actions in and around Ukraine have not been, and are not now, defensive in nature…This is a 21st-century offensive employing 21st-century tools for strategic deception and calculated ambiguity to achieve Moscow’s political goals.” It is time to recognize this power play for the cunning asymmetrical warfare it actually is.
But to actually deter further Russian aggression requires an overt demonstration of competence and will. Vladimir Putin must have credible reason to believe that further escalation is not only contrary to his long-term interest, but that the military operation will fail—or at least be much harder and much more costly than he currently thinks it will be.
Those who argue that assisting the Ukrainian military would be “reckless and provocative,” misunderstand the logic of deterrence. Unless the Ukrainian military can provide a credible counter-force, Putin will continue to think this is a fight easily won. As Philip Stephens explains, “weakness stokes the Russian president’s expansionism.”
The U.S. and NATO have rightly expressed their support for Ukraine and have taken small steps to support their military. Non-lethal aid, like body armor, medical supplies, food, and other equipment are critical. But for Ukraine to present a viable deterrent to Putin’s ambitions, it needs funding to pay troops, advisers to help plan, intelligence support for targeting, training for new recruits, and yes, ammunition and defensive weapons.
All this can be provided without putting U.S. or NATO boots in the fight. Military aid is not the same as military intervention. Far from escalating the conflict or provoking Putin, bolstering Ukraine’s forces can actually deter further incursions by demonstrating to an ambitious aggressor the very real possibility that escalation will result in a messy and ultimately embarrassing demonstration of his military might.
Failing to adequately assist the Ukrainian military as Russian troops position for invasion is the opposite of deterrence, as it provokes, through demonstrated weakness, the very behavior we are trying to avoid.